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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

GOP embarrassment? Or photo finish?

Florida’s legislative session will either be a photo finish or a Republican embarrassment.

On Monday, with just four days left in the 60-day session, GOP leaders threw a few verbal jabs at each other and began seriously talking about an overtime session because they can’t agree on the fine print of $29 billion worth of healthcare spending.

The Senate wants to spend more than the House on Medicaid doctor reimbursements. The House wants to spend more than the Senate for mental-health and substance-abuse treatment. The Senate also spends less than the House on programs for the developmentally disabled and the catastrophically sick in the Health and Human Services budget.

“The difference between the House and Senate HHS budgets is that the House is trying to level fund critical needs and resolve deficits and the Senate is trying to fund political payback to special interests, member projects and early implement federal health care reform,” House budget chair Denise Grimsley said in a written statement.

Those are fighting words in a Republican-led Legislature where President Barack Obama’s healthcare plan is a favorite whipping boy.

Grimsley’s fellow Republican counterpart, Sen. J.D. Alexander, smiled when told of the statement.

“Those aren’t Denise’s words,” said Alexander, who has known Grimsley since they were in the same first grade class at Zolfo Springs Elementary School. 

 So whose words are they? “You know who,” said Alexander, suggesting they were the statement of sharp-tongued House Speaker Dean Cannon, whom Alexander accused of gamesmanship last week.

Cannon couldn’t be reached to respond.

Earlier in the day, he cast doubt on an on-time finish, which is a point of pride for legislators who are required to pass a balanced budget in the two-month session. Republicans say it’s tough to justify the expense of extending a session when they control veto-proof majorities in both chambers.

“I certainly hope we can get done on time,” Cannon said. “My gut tells me it’s going to be a photo-finish.” 

Cannon, R-Winter Park, said “it’s more important that we get it done right than we get it done quickly.” His counterpart, Senate President Mike Haridopolos said the same thing.

But in Haridopolos’ case, finishing on time is more politically important. He’s running for U.S. Senate and he’d rather hit the campaign trail than stay in Tallahassee.

Haridopolos and Cannon had no idea what they’d do if they can’t pass a budget, worth about $68 billion.

“We’re having a heckuva lot of trouble trying to find common ground,” he said.

Haridopolos said it isn’t easy to balance a budget like Florida’s while staring down a nearly $4 billion budget hole. That task is even more complicated by the fact that legislators want to give Gov. Rick Scott a win by cutting taxes – thereby making the shortfall slightly wider.

Scott called for $2.4 billion in tax and fee cuts. Lawmakers say they can’t do that.  Haridopolos said Sunday that the Senate wouldn’t cut corporate-income taxes, but on Monday he backtracked somewhat.

Haridopolos said he's interested in increasing the corporate income tax exemption from $5,000 to $25,000. Such a move, he said, could remove from the rolls roughly half of the 30,000 Florida businesses who pay the tax at a cost of between $30 million to $37 million.

[Last modified: Monday, May 2, 2011 8:05pm]


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